Cilla Black – an unlikely British style icon?

Like many people who have either fond memories of or a particular love of the 1960s, I was saddened to learn of the passing away of British singer and television personality Cilla Black earlier this month.

Although I am not a fan of either her post-1970s work in television, nor particularly her recorded output during her career in the music industry, I have always admired her impeccable fashion sense.

Described by Biba founder Barbara Hulanick in her 1983 autobiography as possessing the perfect fashion figure, Cilla typified the 1960s sylphlike silhouette with her asparagus-like legs, small bust, long slender arms and long neck. For Hulanicki, Cilla’s figure-type represented the perfect Biba Dolly – “fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes”. In the formative years of both of their careers, Barbara and Cilla formed a close professional relationship with Cilla trusting Barbara to designer her a dress for her very first Royal Command Performance, broadcast by the BBC on 8th November, 1964. The dress was maroon velvet renaissance style maxi dress with a wide scooped embellished neckline which accentuated Cilla’s gamine frame to its exaggerated best. Their friendship developed from there with Cilla regularly wearing Barbara’s designs for her performances on top teen music television show Ready, Steady, Go!. Cilla remarked on this period in a newspaper interview back in 2006:

“Barbara [Hulanicki] of Biba was my lifeline, mine and [TV presenter] Cathy McGowan’s. Cathy was doing Ready Steady Go! every week, and I wanted to be with her at the height of fashion. We’d go to Barbara’s flat at 15 Cromwell Road, and they’d be sewing as we sat there. We’d be doing TV’s Ready Steady Go! the next day – so this was Thursday night – and we’d sit there, having great faith that everything would be wonderful. And it always was!”.

Cilla forged friendships with other cutting-edge British fashion designers in the 1960s, notably Ossie Clark, John Bates (Jean Varon) and Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter. Cilla wore Bates’ designs from the outset of her pop music career and well into her television career. Bates would design Cilla’s red velvet mini dress for her marriage to Bobby Willis on 25 January 1969 at Marylebone register office, London, and subsequently an entire wardrobe for her television show.

Always having a keen eye for exceptional fashion design, Cilla – along with husband Bobby and other investors – financed the opening of Tommy Nutter’s tailoring shop Nutters of Savile Row in early 1969. Nutter would continue to enjoy Cilla’s patronage throughout the 1970s also.

Aside from being at the forefront of 1960s youth fashion she was also at the forefront of British cultural consciousness. Cilla possessed something else rather extraordinary but yet ordinary at the same time – that of ordinariness itself. It was her fresh unpolished naturalness which secured her success during those exceptionally transitional years of the early 1960s. Aged just twenty years old, Cilla emerged in late 1963 from obscurity and rose quickly into stardom, the embodiment of the new type of young female – natural, independent and successful in her own right.

(above) Cilla Black live performance of “You’re My World” at the Royal Command Performance, televised on 8th November, 1964.  Wearing velvet renaissance-style maxi dress designed by Barbara Hulanicki.

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(above) Cilla poses for the media outside the new Biba boutique with Biba staff, helping with the move from Abingdon Road to Kensington Church Street (March, 1966).

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(above) Cilla and Bobby on their wedding day – 25 January 1969 at Marylebone register office, London. Cilla wearing John Bates-designed red velvet mini dress.

 

 

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